Sunday, January 29, 2017

Beatitude and the Humility of God

St. Thomas Aquinas, by Carlo Crivelli (1435-1495)

(4th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on January 28 and January 29, 2017 at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Central Falls, R.I.  See Zephaniah 2:3-3:13 and Matthew 5:1-12)

This weekend (January 28) we celebrated the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th Century Doctor of the Church and renowned teacher of the Catholic faith.  The beautiful story is told about St. Thomas, that towards the end of his life the Lord Jesus appeared to him and said, “You have written well of me, Thomas.  What reward would you have for your labor?”  To which Aquinas responded, “Nothing but you, Lord.”

One of the most basic teachings of St. Thomas that reflects this experience, and one that affects us all in a very direct way, is the truth that God created us to be happy.  When God brought us into existence, He intended for us to be truly happy in this life, and to live in eternal happiness with Him.  

Justly could we ask today, however, “Then why are there so many people in this world who are unhappy?”  Why are many people (maybe even most people?) not as happy as they would like to be?  Part of the answer to that question might be that they are not seeking the happiness for which God has created them.  

According to Aquinas, God creates us to be happy in this life by knowing the truth and desiring the good.  Above all, we are created to know the truth about God—that He is loving and merciful, that He is a God of justice and faithfulness, and that He is a God of forgiveness and compassion.  To not know the truth about God, then—to think that He is vengeful, narrow or unforgiving; to believe that God is distant and unconcerned for us; to not believe that He exists or to live as if He did not exist—this is what leads us to great unhappiness.  

To not desire the good, likewise, would inevitably leave us unhappy.  When people desire, instead, things that are harmful or evil, things that God never intended for us, they depart from the path of happiness and begin to walk down the road of discontentment.  To know the truth and desire the good, those are the things that make us happy here in this world.

But St. Thomas Aquinas also teaches that there is something even greater than this happiness for which we are created, an invitation by divine grace to a blessedness and a happiness that begins here, and continues into eternity.  He calls it amicitia dei, friendship with God.   Not only to know the truth about God, or to desire the good things that God provides for us; more than that, we are created to know and love God Himself.  We are called to be in relationship with Him.  We are called to friendship with God.  We spend time with Him, and speak to Him in prayer about what worries us, what saddens us, what we are hopeful about; we give ourselves generously to Him in the silence, that place where He speaks to our souls and refashions them in love.  We become more and more like God by our intimate relationship and friendship with Him: amicitia dei.

This friendship with God is perhaps the best way to understand the Gospel of St. Matthew this weekend: Jesus’ teaching on the Beatitudes.  Jesus is teaching us about the blessed life, the life of happiness, the life of beatitude.  But clearly the program He outlines for us is very different from the one that we ordinarily associate with happiness.  Jesus proclaims:  Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . Blessed are those who mourn. . . Blessed are the meek. . .Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. . . 

These are not the things that usually come to mind when we think of happiness.  One of the most radical and profound dimensions of the beatitudes, in fact, is that Jesus does not promise a happiness for these souls in the next life only, or merely in the world to come.  No, he makes it emphatic:

Blessed ARE the poor in spirit!  Right here, right now, they are already blessed.  Blessed ARE those who mourn!  Yes, they will be consoled, they will receive a great recompense in the life to come, but they are already blessed, even in this life.  Blessed ARE they who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . .  Blessed ARE the clean of heart . . .

The remarkable reality of the beatitudes, as described by Christ Himself, is that they already anticipate, and even initiate, the life of heaven—eternal happiness, beatitude—here in this life.  They will ultimately lead us to eternal life and the vision of God, but already they draw heaven down into this world, and imbue this place with divine light.  Pope Benedict XVI, in Volume I of his tryptic, Jesus of Nazareth, writes beautifully on the beatitudes as an encounter with this descent of God into this world in the person of Jesus Christ.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus proclaims, “for the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:3).  

In our first reading, from the prophet Zephaniah, we are exhorted: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth, who have observed his law; seek justice, seek humility” (Zephaniah 2:3).    Those who seek after these things, they are the ones who embody this humility and poverty of  spirit that Jesus indicates will take hold of the kingdom of heaven.  But they will not have the wherewithal to rise up and lay hold of it by their own power.  No, it will come to them, descend upon them in the person of Christ.  God cannot resist drawing close to the humble heart.  Pope Benedict explains:

“Now Israel recognizes that its poverty is exactly what brings it close to God; it recognizes that the poor, in their humility, are the ones closest to God’s heart, whereas the opposite is true of the arrogant pride of the rich, who rely on themselves.”
—Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 75 

  Constantly in the television ads and the images that are presented by the media and in film we are given the message that wealth will make you happy; power will make you happy; always getting your own way will make you happy.  But those who are most wealthy, or most powerful, or who consistently manage to get their own way are often the unhappiest of all!  Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:3).  

Pope Benedict also examines the beatitude, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).  He insists that this teaches us exactly the opposite of what the modern world holds about religion and salvation.  He explains that the prevailing view is that everyone should simply follow their own religion and that will lead to a blessed life.  He calls in to question this position, asking whether the destruction of one’s enemies in a holy war will lead to blessedness.  Is Jihad working well in the Middle East and in other places on the earth?  Is that making people happy?  Or, he questions, will blood vengeance?  This practice, held religiously in some places of the world, will that make people happy?  Will atheism and the denial of God make for the blessed life?  Or those who make their own conscience and their own personal desires the moral norm for life,  will these find happiness and the blessed life?  “No,” he answers, “God demands the opposite.”

We hunger and thirst for righteousness, and we do not immediately find it; we long for and pine for more than what we see and experience, and cry out to God for more.  In this hunger and thirst, Pope Benedict explains, we are open to the God who comes to us in that encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.  The Christian religion is unique in that it is ultimately not a quest where we discover God at the end of the journey, but one in which our longing and yearning opens our eyes to the reality that He has come to us.

Finally, in the beatitude “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8), we discover once again the descending love that imbues us with beatitude.  Pope Benedict XVI explains that, ultimately, we are not the ones capable of achieving this purity that will open our eyes to the vision of God.  Purification happens, instead, when we follow Christ and unite ourselves to Him.  It is not our sacrifices that purify us, but His sacrifice on the cross.  Christ descends from heaven to earth, and in that sacrificial offering of Himself on Calvary His blood, poured out in love, is that which purifies and sanctifies us.  Brilliantly, Benedict XVI explains:

“God descends, to the point of death on the cross.  And precisely by doing so, he reveals himself in his true divinity.  We ascend to God by accompanying him on this descending path.”
—Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 94 

When we unite ourselves to the cross of Christ, we receive that purification that allows us to draw closer and closer to Jesus Christ.  God descends to us in the person of Christ, to the point of the crucifixion, uniting Himself even to our suffering.  We are not alone in the crosses we bear.  He comes to us.  When we unite ourselves to Him, God draws us closer to Himself in the blessed life, and allows us to ascend on the path of beatitude. 

This weekend Christ calls us to a life of beatitude, a life of blessedness and happiness.  Are we willing to follow Him on that path?  Do we desire to be “Poor in spirit,” truly humble as we seek the things that God desires for us?  Do we “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” longing and pining for that which only God can give, awakening our souls to the life of grace?  Do we long to be “clean of heart,” uniting ourselves even in our suffering to the God who loves us enough to die for us on the cross?  If so, we can discover what St. Thomas Aquinas taught about being happy in this world and happy forever in the world to come.  If we follow Christ on the path of beatitude, we will discover what it truly means to live the blessed life.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

New Beginnings and The Light of Christ

Sunrise on the Sea of Galilee

(3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on January 21, 2017 at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Central Falls, R.I. and Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Cumberland, R.I., and on January 22, 2017 at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Central Falls, R.I. see Isaiah 8:23-9:3 and Matthew 4:12-23)

We are only a few short weeks into the New Year.  Perhaps you made some New Year’s resolutions earlier this month, and, like most people, maybe you have had the chance to break them!  No matter.  In the Christian life and in our spiritual relationship with Christ, there is always an opportunity to begin again.  

Our gospel this weekend tells the story of new beginnings: the start of Jesus’ public ministry, the calling of the first Apostles, Peter and Andrew, James and John.  And St. Matthew tells us that it all began “in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali” (Matthew 4:13).  

Where on earth are Zubulun and Naphtali?  Those are two names we almost never hear in our Sunday readings, yet this weekend we hear them mentioned several times, in the first reading from Isaiah the prophet and in the Gospel of St. Matthew.

Zebulun and Naphtali, to go back to the Old Testament, were two of the twelve tribes of Israel.  Remember that the twelve tribes were named after the twelve sons of Jacob; when God delivered His people from slavery and death in Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land, the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali settled into the region of the north, near the Sea of Galilee.

The north of Palestine was a region rich in natural resources and abundant in opportunities; they enjoyed a tremendous fishing industry on the Sea of Galilee, as we hear in all the gospels.  But because that region was so close to the bordering nations, it was also the most vulnerable and exposed.  Time and again Zebulun and Naphtali had been invaded and devastated by the enemies of Israel.

In the 8th century B.C., the nation of Assyria had come in and wiped them out, carrying many of the people into exile, and worse, repopulating the land with their own.  The unity of culture and faith of the tribes to the north had been broken and dissipated.  It was for that reason that Isaiah the prophet and St. Matthew both referred to it as “Galilee of the Gentiles.” That was not a term of endearment.  The region of Zebulun and Naphtali was referred to as “a land overshadowed by death” (Matthew 4:15-16) because it was a place of brokenness, a place of sorrow and a place of darkness. 

And it is precisely in that place where Jesus Christ, the Messiah, begins to restore the twelve tribes of Israel, to heal the nation and to renew the face of the earth.  

There is an important spiritual principal here.  God will often shine the light of Christ into our darkness just when we need it most, bringing us hope and new life.  It is not that God wants us to experience tragedy and difficult times, but perhaps it is only when we are most vulnerable that we are able to open our hearts to divine grace and recognize that we need the light of Christ.  God’s greatest work is often accomplished in our darkest hours.

There is a powerful story about St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic and Doctor of the Church.  St. John of the Cross, along with the beloved St. Teresa of Avila, felt called by God to reform the Carmelite Order.  The Carmelites, unlike the Franciscans or the Dominicans, are called to a strictly contemplative life.  They were founded to be a community of silent and communal prayer, but in the 16th century they had moved far away from that ideal.  Set aflame by the Spirit of God in prayer, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila were instrumental in bringing about a greatly needed reform.

Reform in the Church, however, does not come without a cost.  Those called to reform the Church from the inside are often confronted with tremendous opposition, and such was the case with St. John of the Cross.  In the winter of 1577, he was literally abducted and brought in handcuffs to a monastery in the City of Toledo.  John was placed in a prison cell where there was no heat, no light and little food.  Yet suddenly, there in the darkness, the most remarkable thing began to happen.  God began to shine the light of Jesus Christ into his soul.  

Biographer Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. writes, “In that cramped prison, stripped of all earthly comfort, he was touched with some rays of divine light.”  John was filled with love for God and even for those who had mistreated him.  He made friends with one of his captors and soon prevailed upon him for some writing paper and a pen.  There, in the darkness of that prison cell, St. John of the Cross began to compose some of the most eloquent and beautiful poetry found anywhere in the Spanish language.  He wrote about divine grace, forgiveness and the ineffable love God has for us in Jesus Christ.  Some of God’s greatest work can happen in our darkest hours.

Where is God speaking to us, in our lives, perhaps even in those places where the darkness seems to have settled in?  Where are we most in need of a new beginning and the light of Jesus Christ?  We remember, first and foremost, the words of Jesus in the Gospel this weekend.  The very first words he proclaims in His public ministry are: Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (Matthew 4:17).  Before the light of Christ can illumine and inspire our souls we need to make a purposeful decision to turn away from sin.  If we have allowed any darkness into our lives, into our relationships, into our communities, then we ask for the grace to turn back once again to God.

But more than that, we ask that God would flood our souls with light in all those places that we experience challenges and the contradictions of life.  In any of those places where there is doubt or difficulty, we ask for the light of Jesus Christ to strengthen us and renew us once again.  May we discover what St. John of the Cross found in that small, dark place, and what St. Peter and St. Andrew, St. James and St. John, and all the great saints down through the ages have experienced:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shone.

—Isaiah 9:2

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Discipleship, Evangelization and the Lamb of God

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, by Jan van Eyck

(2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on January 15, 2017 at St. Peter's Church in Warwick, R.I.; see John 1:29-34)

There is a crisis in American culture today, and one that also affects the American Catholic Church.  It is not a political crisis (although we have no shortage of those in our time).  Nor is it precisely a crisis of vocations, although there is ample reason to be concerned with the declining number of priestly vocations in many dioceses.  The crisis before us is as obvious as it is discouraging: our churches are no longer full, and fewer people today are choosing to practice their faith.

Certainly, in many suburban parishes, there is a vibrant and active spirit that gives us all a great deal of hope.  But for many of the parishes in our cities—places where, perhaps 50 years ago, parishioners would have arrived 15 minutes early just to get a seat—the pews are more empty than full.

Bishop Robert Barron, the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, recently referred to a survey that was taken about the faith life of Americans.  An astounding 25%, when asked what their religious affiliation was, indicated “none.”  This phenomenon of the “nones,” as many call it (not to be confused with nuns!), is one that has steadily increased over the years.  A decade ago, according to that survey, some 15% of Americans identified as “nones”.  Perhaps many others at that time would have responded, “I am Catholic, although I do not currently practice my faith,” or “I’m evangelical Christian but I do not attend services regularly.”  Today, one quarter of Americans simply have no religious affiliation at all.  In the words of Bishop Barron: “Houston, we have a problem!”

In her bestselling book, Forming Intentional Disciples, author and co-founder of the Catherine of Siena Institute, Sherry Weddell, indicates that her experience working with leaders in dozens of dioceses across the country has revealed that only 5% of practicing Catholics are “intentional disciples.”  Church leaders she encountered described many well-intentioned persons who, nonetheless, did not possess a deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  Many, Weddell explains, understood the call to be a saint as an extraordinary ambition versus the lives of “ordinary” Catholics; there seemed to be no middle ground of being intentionally “on the way” to sanctity.   Apparently absent was the category for “intentional disciples,” people who have experienced Jesus Christ in a personal way and, inspired from within by the Holy Spirit, actively strive to worship God with their entire lives, serving and loving Him and their neighbors.  

These are all percentages and figures, and who could know the exact numbers and precise distinctions of where people are, religiously and spiritually today?  Nonetheless, the numbers add up, and the crisis of our time is emphatically a crisis of faith.

In November 2013, Pope Francis chose to look at this challenge, which effects not only Americans but a multitude of nations and peoples, not only as a crisis but also as an opportunity.  In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, he encouraged the Church to see the great value of proclaiming the awesome message of joy that the Gospel promises to those who long for it.  We are not hocking some new product or seeking to bring in more parishioners so we can raise money and construct new buildings.  No, we are proclaiming the saving message of Jesus Christ, and His forgiveness, and the new, eternal life He offers. 

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis offered an invitation for all Christians everywhere, “to a renewed encounter with Jesus Christ” (Evangelii Gaudium, #3).  His words were reminiscent of Pope Benedict XVI’s passionate description in the encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, when he wrote, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, #1).  An encounter with the person of Jesus Christ changes and transforms our lives.  We are set on fire with that love that seeks to make Him known in this world, to proclaim the great message of our faith. 

What is that message?  What is this “joy of the Gospel” that we are all called to announce? Pope Francis, in words nearly identical to those of St. John Paul II in Novo Millennio Inuente, explains:

The heart of its message will always be the same: the God who revealed His immense love in the crucified and risen Christ.
—Evangelii Gaudium, #11

That is the core message that we are called to proclaim to those around us.  Those who encounter Christ in a deeply personal way, those set on fire with the love and mercy of God, are inspired to communicate that “immense love” to those who long to hear it.  We help others to understand that God loves us enough to send His Son into this world, that Christ loves us enough to suffer and die for us on the cross.  We are forgiven, loved, redeemed.  Baptized into Jesus Christ, we can now “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).    How could we not proclaim that awesome message to the entire world?

In a word, we are called to be evangelists.  

But doesn’t that sound a little overwhelming?  Is Jesus asking us to stand on a soapbox in the middle of the supermarket or the Providence Place Mall and preach like St. Paul?  I would suggest that this Sunday’s Gospel shows us a beautiful pattern for evangelization, one that might pleasantly surprise us and not overwhelm us at all.  

St. John the Baptist announces in the Gospel this weekend: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  Those listening to him that day would have had a very clear sense of what the Baptist was talking about.  The lamb was central to the religious life of the people of Israel.  When they were rescued from the land of Egypt, only those who had sprinkled their doorposts with the blood of the lamb, and had eaten the lamb as their Passover meal, were saved.  God saved them in a single night, brought them out of slavery and death in Egypt and to a new life in the Promised Land.  To make certain that they would never forget or take for granted so great a gift, He commanded through Moses that the people sacrifice a lamb each year as a memorial of that “passing over” from death to life.  It was the memorial of their redemption.
Once they became established in the Promised Land and built the Temple in Jerusalem, every day—right up to the time of Christ—the priests would offer the sacrifice of a lamb in atonement for the sins of the people.  Suddenly St. John the Baptist announces, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  They would not have missed the significance of that moment.  John is saying nothing less than that this Jesus is the Messiah, the one who will be sacrificed for the forgiveness of sins and the redemption of the world.

We read, in the verses immediately following the ones in this Sunday’s Gospel, that St. John the Baptist makes that same announcement to two of his own disciples.  These were men that John the Baptist had a personal relationship with.  He knew them, and they trusted him.  These men immediately leave John and begin to follow Jesus Christ, becoming now disciples of the Lord.  

What happens next in the Gospel is salvation history.  These same men (St. Andrew and St. John the Evangelist) go on to share that joyful discovery with the entire world around them, but they begin with the people they have a relationship with.  St. Andrew would immediately go and find his brother, Simon Peter, and share with him the amazing news that they had found the Christ.  This is how God uses the relationships in our lives, the persons and communities that we are familiar with, to spread the Gospel message.

On a very practical level, I would suggest that Christ is calling us to do the same based upon this pattern of evangelization.  First and foremost, the people in our lives that are no longer practicing their faith, or the increasing category of “nones” that we all encounter on a regular basis, these persons are not strangers to the saving mysteries that we celebrate here this morning.  They are aware of the Mass, of the person of Jesus, of the reality of the cross and how Jesus endured suffering and death for us.  We are simply called to remind them of these realities and share with them how much these things mean in our own lives.  Like St. John the Baptist, in our own words and with our actions we proclaim, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  Do we trust that God is already preparing them for that message?

Secondly, we remember that we received this great message of salvation through ordinary, loving people that took the time to share  the Christian faith with us.  Like the disciples of the Baptist, we trusted them because we had a personal relationship with them.  Priests, religious, parents, brothers and sisters, friends, so many people have had a part in helping us to discover Jesus Christ and to live out our faith.  We thank God for them, but we also ask for the grace to follow through, like St. Andrew and St. John the Evangelist, and share that same saving message with those around us.

Who are those with whom we share a personal relationship, people who trust us and encounter us on a regular basis?  How is Christ calling us to pray for them, even to make sacrifices for them, but ultimately to have the courage to share with them some small aspect or dimension of our faith so that they, too, can come to know Jesus Christ in a deeply personal way?  

In the words of Pope Francis, we seek anew, for ourselves and for those that we love, the great invitation “to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ” (Evangelii Gadium, #3).

Sunday, January 01, 2017

"Year with Mary" & The Face of God

Michelangelo's Pietà

(Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God-Year A; This homily was given on December 31, 2016 and January 1, 2017 at Holy Spirit Parish in Central Falls, R.I.; see Number 6:22-27 and Luke 2:16-21)

We celebrate today the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God.  To entrust ourselves to the maternal protection and loving care of our Lady is the best possible way to enter the Year 2017.  Mary always, always leads us closer to Jesus Christ.   Bishop Tobin has asked that we devote ourselves to a special “Year with Mary our Mother” in this New Year.  As we enter into 2017, who of us can say that we are already close enough, or as close as we would like to be, to the Blessed Virgin Mary?  There is always room for us to grow in our relationships.  We thank God for the grace to enter more deeply into relationship with Mary and with her son, Jesus, in this coming year.

There are so many beautiful images of the Blessed Virgin Mary in this Church!  We find Mary wonderfully illuminated in stained glass, and handsomely fashioned in several statutes here.  One of the most beloved and well-known representations of Mary is found in Michelangelo’s Pietà.   We are all familiar with that remarkable sculpture in St. Peter’s Basilica of the Blessed Mother, holding Christ’s body in her lap just after He has been taken down from the cross. 

There is a powerful story about Michelangelo, who was present during one of the initial displays of the Pietà before it came to rest at St. Peter’s.  At that time, someone asked Michelangelo, “Why does Mary look so young?”  If you look closely at the Pietà, Mary looks about 25 years-old, at most.  Of course, we know that Jesus was 33 years-old when He was crucified, and so the Blessed Mother would have been at least 45 years-old, perhaps even as old as 50. Michelangelo’s response is telling.  While some say the sculptor responded that Mary appears so youthful because of her purity and by virtue of the fact that she was conceived without any stain of original sin, others contend that his response was much less theological.  They say Michelangelo remarked how, when he sculpted the Mother of God, he had in his heart his own mother, who died when he was just a young boy.  He sculpted the Mother of God as a beautiful, youthful woman, because that is the only image of mother that he had in his heart.

Whatever the case may be, with great love and devotion Michelangelo made the face of Mary visible for all the world to see.  The great mystery of the Incarnation, when Christ was born in a manger in Bethlehem, expresses that same reality: that God suddenly made the face of Christ visible.  What we celebrate here today, however, is that He did so only through the cooperation of the Blessed Virgin Mary!  Mary’s faithful response to God allowed the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem, and suddenly the entire world could see the face of God.

That expression, “the face of God,” is one that is used frequently in the Old Testament.  It is used in our First Reading for this weekend, in the Book of Numbers, when God is instructing Moses and Aaron how to bless the people of Israel.  He proclaims to Moses and Aaron:

Say to them:
The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon
you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and
give you peace!

—Numbers 6:24-26
That expression, of course, was only understood figuratively by the people of Israel, because God did not literally have a face.  God, as they understood Him, was purely spiritual.  He was invisible and dwelt in “unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).  But suddenly, when Christ is born in Bethlehem, the face of God becomes visible and that blessing of God takes on a whole new reality.

In our Gospel for this Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, the shepherds received a vision of angels instructing them to go and see the child born in the manger.  They made their way to the place where the child was, and suddenly they were looking upon the face of God.  That blessing from the Book of Numbers was something they experienced quite literally.  Of them it could be said: “The Lord bless you and keep you!  The Lord let his face shine upon you, shepherds, and be gracious to you!  The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!

The face of the child Jesus shone upon them and the Messiah looked upon them kindly.  How much do we long to look upon the face of God?  How aware are we of the God who longs to let His face shine upon us and grant us His peace?  This “Year with Mary” is a timely opportunity for us to seek the face of God and to receive all the blessings He greatly desires to give us.

Bishop Tobin, in his introduction of the “Year with Mary,” suggested some very practical ways that we can enter more deeply into this relationship with Mary, who always leads us closer to Christ.  He encouraged us all to imitate the virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, seeking her protection and the graces she desires for us.  What are those virtues?

The first beautiful and virtuous image of Mary that comes to us today in the Gospel is that of a woman of prayer.  Mary hears what the shepherds say about her son, she listens to the account of the angels, and St. Luke tells us that, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).  Mary spent time in silence reflecting on the great mysteries that were transpiring around her.  Several times in the Scriptures we are told that she kept these wonderful and mysterious events in her heart and reflected upon them.  Do we?

How much time do we spend each day, alone and in silence with God?  Do we spend time reflecting and meditating on the birth of Christ in poverty and humility?  Do we spend time considering the passion of Jesus Christ?  His resurrection from the dead and all that it means for our lives?  A recent survey revealed that the average American spends five hours a day before the TV set.  Five hours!  Is it unreasonable to consider giving back one of those hours to God in prayer each day?  Our lives would be completely transformed if we, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, were to spend even 15 minutes alone and in silence before God each day meditating on the great mysteries of Christ.  How can we, like Mary, become men and women of prayer in 2017?

Secondly, Bishop Tobin suggested that we imitate Mary’s faith and her response to God.  Mary was responsive to the voice of God in her life; she believed in the promises of God and she was ready to respond to what He was asking of her.  Fiat voluntas tua. “Be it done unto me according to your word.”  This faith and generosity towards God is what brought the Messiah into this world and allowed our Savior to be born in that stable in Bethlehem.  God still wants to be made present in this world, but He is asking for our cooperation to do so.  He wants us to respond with that same faith, that same openness and generosity to what He desires to accomplish through us.  In 2017 we ask for the grace to imitate Mary’s faith and her response to God.

Finally, Bishop Tobin also suggested monthly prayer intentions, asking for our Lady’s intercession for ourselves and the world around us.  For the month of January, the Bishop’s intention is “For an increase in Respect for Life, especially for unborn children.”  January is the month that marks the anniversary of the tragic court decision of Roe V. Wade.  Since 1973, millions of unborn children in our country have been sacrificed on the altar of “choice.”  In 2017, we ask for Mary’s powerful intercession in reversing that terrible court decision. 

This month we ask for Mary’s protection for all the children that will be conceived, so many of them in danger of losing their lives to abortion.  We also ask for our Lady’s intercession for all the women who have already made that decision in their lives to terminate a pregnancy, however long ago or recent, or whatever the circumstances may have been, that they may know with certainty how very much God loves them and desires to give them His forgiveness and the grace of a new beginning.  It is perhaps through Mary’s intercession alone that we can experience new pathways of healing and a new way of life that ultimately leads us directly on the path to Jesus Christ in 2017.

How is God calling each of us this year, like Michelangelo, and like the Blessed Virgin Mary, to make God present in the world that we live in?  What are the ways that we will seek the face of God in prayer and strive to make Him visible for those that we encounter?  Because, ultimately, what the world needs more than anything else in 2017 is to encounter and embrace Jesus Christ.  What the world longs for, more than anything else, is to behold the face of God.